Understanding Bronchitis

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis can best be described as inflammation in the lungs, commonly referred to as chest cold. It can occur as a viral illness like the common cold, or a more severe condition like a chronic smoker’s hack.

Bronchitis can also be caused by exposure to chemical irritants, smoke, or bacteria. Typical symptoms associated with bronchitis are cough, phlegm, and feeling tired. However, these are also symptoms of other illnesses, so it is essential to get the right diagnosis.

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How Bronchitis Affects Your Lungs

When the bronchial tubes that carry air deep into your lungs become irritated, it causes the inner lining to swell and grow thicker, thereby narrowing the breathing passages. These inflamed membranes also secrete extra mucus, which coats and sometimes blocks the small airways. In a bid for the body to clear out these secretions for easier breathing, it triggers coughing spells.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

The main symptom of bronchitis is a productive cough that persists several days to weeks. Other symptoms that may occur are:

Fever is unusual. In cases where fever is present, it may point to flu or pneumonia.

How Long Does Acute Bronchitis Last?

Acute bronchitis often develops about three to four days after a cold or the flu. It may start with a dry cough, then after a few days the coughing spells may bring up mucus. Most people get over an acute attack of bronchitis in two to three weeks, although the cough can sometimes linger on for four weeks or more. If you’re in otherwise good health, your lungs will return to normal after you’ve recuperated from the initial infection.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis occurs when you have a cough with phlegm on most days for at least three months in a year, for two years in a row. Chronic bronchitis is a serious condition that causes your lungs to become a breeding ground for bacterial infections and may necessitate ongoing medical treatment. It’s one form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD – a lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe properly). The “smoker’s cough” is sometimes a sign of bronchitis and COPD.

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Illnesses that Mimic Bronchitis

The symptoms of bronchitis are often the same as other conditions, such as pneumonia, asthma, common cold, allergies, influenza, sinusitis, and even gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and lung cancer. Endeavor to contact your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

Causes of Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is more common in winter or cold season, and nine out of 10 cases are caused by a virus. It can also be triggered by irritants like tobacco smoke, smog, chemicals in household cleaners, and fumes or dust in the environment.

Causes of Chronic Bronchitis

The most common cause of chronic bronchitis is smoking. Exposure to dust and toxic gases at places of work is a much less common cause, seen in miners and grain handlers. Air pollution can aggravate symptoms for people with chronic bronchitis.

Smokers and Bronchitis

A smoker who gets acute bronchitis will have a much difficult time recuperating. Even one puff on a cigarette can cause temporary damage to the tiny hair-like structures (cilia) in the airways that brush out irritants, debris, and excess mucus. Further smoking continues the damage and increases the chances of chronic bronchitis, which can lead to increased risk of lung infection and irreversible damage to the lung. It is best to quit smoking, contact your doctor on ways to help you quit.

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How is Acute Bronchitis Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose acute bronchitis by examining how your symptoms have developed over time and through a physical inspection. Using a stethoscope, your doctor will listen for any abnormal sounds produced within your lungs when you inhale and exhale.

How is Chronic Bronchitis Diagnosed?

A medical history, physical exam, and pulmonary function testing would be recommended by your doctor to test for chronic bronchitis. Pulmonary function tests like spirometry measure how well the lungs are functioning. A chest X-ray may also be conducted.

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Treatment for Acute Bronchitis

The only treatment generally needed for acute bronchitis is symptom relief: Drink lots of fluids; get plenty of rest; and avoiding smoke and fumes. A non-prescription pain reliever may help with body aches. Your doctor may prescribe an expectorant to help loosen mucus so it can be more easily coughed up or an inhaled bronchodilator medicine to open your airways.

Treatment for Chronic Bronchitis

If you have chronic bronchitis related to smoking, the most important thing to do is to quit smoking to prevent continuing damage to your lungs. Unless your doctor advises against it, get a pneumococcal vaccine and an annual flu vaccine. Treatment may include bronchodilators and steroids (inhaled or by mouth).

Treatment for Chronic Bronchitis and COPD

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two main forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Doctors may prescribe bronchodilators, which are drugs that help open constricted airways. Oxygen therapy helps some people breathe better and a pulmonary rehab program can improve your quality of life. You must also quit smoking to stop further lung damage.

When to Call the Doctor

Check in with your medical provider if you:

  • Have a cough lasting more than four weeks
  • Feel breathless
  • Cough up blood
  • Have a fever greater than 101 F (38 C)

Preventing Bronchitis

The best ways to decrease your risk is;

  • Don’t smoke or allow others to smoke in your home
  • Avoid colds
  • Stay away from things that irritate your nose, throat, and lungs, such as dust or pets.
  • If you catch a cold, get plenty of rest and take your medicine as directed by your doctor.


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